Our well-being as physicians is an essential part of professionalism. If we aren't well, we can't provide the best care to our patients, who deserve our best.
I’m a primary care physician (general internist) who’s been burned out before. When I was burned out, I realized I wasn’t as good of a doctor. I listened less, I got frustrated more easily, and I took less time with my patients. Being aware of burnout encourages us to work on our individual well-being and improving our system, which will help us to be more caring doctors, more thoughtful about the care we provide to patients.
Research tells us that more than half of practicing physicians in the US have burnout symptoms. It’s also been shown that residents and medical students have higher rates of burnout and depression compared to people in similar age groups studying in other fields. Burnout is not limited to doctors–nurses also have very high levels of burnout and report concern that their work is negatively impacting their health. Those of us working in primary care and emergency medicine have some of the highest rates of burnout.
Doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals, are essential to our nation’s overall health, and we need to take their burnout seriously. It’s particularly important because research tells us that practicing physicians who have burnout symptoms have increased risks of alcohol dependence and suicidal ideation. Physician suicide rates are significantly higher than the general population, especially for female physicians.
Many national organizations are calling for change to the health system to reduce burnout and improve well-being for physicians. It’s essential that health leaders make these changes to improve our working environment. However, this will take time. It’s also important that individual doctors think about how to make wellness work.
Here are my suggestions:
- Find your role model for wellness. There isn’t one right way to make wellness work, but it’s important to find those who have made it work and learn from them. They can also help to support you when you’re having a tough day. Look for role models in many different places–a fellow physician may role model this well, but you might find that your role models are nurses, pharmacists, or administrative staff.
- Write down your values and what’s important to you. This will help you to decide how to prioritize your time.
- Write a well-being plan. This might include exercise, spirituality, mindfulness, your favorite hobby, and other things that bring you joy and help you find balance.
- Build resilience. Caring for our patients is a privilege and is challenging work. We all need to know what gives us strength to allow us to provide the best care we can.
- Know that burnout is not failure. Many, in fact probably most, physicians experience burnout at some point in their careers. However, many find skills to help them get past burnout and learn from it. Recognize that the stressors of our work ebb and flow, and that if you hit a difficult time, it’s time to take a step back and see what you need to get past the burnout.
- Get help for severe burnout, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Getting help is what you, your patients, and your loved ones deserve.